By Benjamin Horvath – Inside Towers Special Correspondent
Scaling structures hundreds of feet tall isn’t a skill that comes natural to most people. Just like any occupation, gaining firsthand experience enables a person to develop a nuanced understanding of his or her craft, something that cannot be fully taught and learned in a few-day training session.
Thus is the underlying philosophy of the Telecommunications Industry Registered Apprenticeship Program (TIRAP).
In the decade before the organization’s founding last year, there was a dramatic increase in tower related deaths as the cellular industry gained momentum. An investigation by ProPublica and PBS “” showed that between 2003 and 2011, 50 climbers died working on cell sites, more than half of the nearly 100 who were killed on other types of communications towers.
“We were at a point [in the industry] where we were having so many fatalities that it just got out of control,” said David Sams, Vice President of Risk Management at SBA and Vice Chair of TIRAP. “It got to a point where the government was saying ‘you’re going to have to do something as an industry, or we’ll have to step in to regulate.’”
On February 10, 2014, OSHA released a cautionary letter addressed to the “Communication Tower Industry Employer as a response to the spike in climber fatalities.” The letter, from the Department of Labor’s Assistant Secretary of OSHA David Michaels, PhD, MPH, was detailed and clear in expressing OSHA’s concern over the rising number of fatalities. It included a warning that OSHA would levy additional fines on employers who failed to prevent climber fatalities.
“In recent months, the communication tower industry has experienced an alarming increase in worker deaths. In 2013, 13 workers in the industry were killed at communication tower worksites. This is more worker deaths than in the previous two years combined. Four more workers have been killed in the first weeks of 2014,” Michaels wrote, adding, “Every single one of these tragedies was preventable.”
Michaels’ letter concluded, “For the sake of your employees and your business, I strongly urge you to do everything you can to prevent these needless injuries and deaths before anyone else is hurt.”
The tower industry heeded the warning and took immediate steps to stave off further OSHA regulation by empowering companies to comply with necessary safety requirements, something that companies in the industry already have the tools to do, Sams said. TIPAC was born in 2015.
“To comply with regulations that are already in place all you need to do is understand that the regulation is there and be able to understand those regulations and train your employees to those regulations,” Sams said. “As we all come together as a whole, then we don’t need intervention from anyone else. We have the capability to do things the right way if everyone buys in.”
The organization is comprised of tower companies, carriers and contractors alike, who have worked together to develop an apprenticeship program through the Department of Labor. The organization’s goal, Sams said, is to fully eliminate fatalities across the industry by standardizing the curriculum with which climbers are trained.
“We thought the best way to do this was have the whole industry follow the same codes—whether it be from a safety or quality perspective—we want to make sure [climbers] have the proper training to do the necessary jobs,” Sams said.
Companies can voluntarily participate in the Apprenticeship Program and must ensure that apprentices complete the requisite safety and technical training set forth by the criteria developed by TIRAP. The organization seeks to bring several voices to the table to ensure wide industry participation and to help standardize the developed curriculum.
Sams said broad industry participation is necessary to fulfill the organization’s mission, which, he said, is very attainable due to the relative size of the industry. Plus, having been approved by the Department of Labor, the organization’s curriculum reflects existing OSHA safety regulations and standards, meaning those who participate will ensure they are OSHA-compliant.
Still in its infancy the program has had just a handful of trained apprentices, but Sams said he would personally like to see over a thousand individuals trained through the curriculum in the next three to five years, something he thinks “is very attainable.”
“We’re trying to set a standard criteria for training climbers,” Sams said, “Eventually, we would like to see everyone who comes through the industry trained to the same criteria.”
For more information about TIRAP, click here: http://www.tirap.org